Enes Kanter, the NBA star wanted in his native Turkey for criticizing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, continues to speak out against the Turkish government’s authoritarian rule. Despite death threats, an arrest warrant, and being unable to see his family for four years, the basketball player says he remains hopeful for Turkey after Erdogan in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya English.
“Turkey cannot be left to its own destiny in the hands of a lunatic dictator,” says the US-based Kanter, who uses his public platform as a well-known NBA player to advocate on behalf of people in Turkey who can’t speak out in fear of arrest.
“People know my story because I’m playing in the NBA, but there are thousands of families out there [in Turkey] and their stories are way worse than mine,” the Boston Celtics star explained to Al Arabiya English.
Born in Switzerland to Turkish parents, Kanter’s role as a political critic began in 2013, when Erdogan began shutting down private college preparatory centers in Turkey. The clampdown was seen as a move against the popular cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Kanter supports, after protests against Erdogan’s authoritarianism in Gezi Park, Istanbul.
In May, 2016, Kanter – who had moved from Turkey to the US aged 17 and was then playing for Oklahoma City Thunder – was accused of insulting Erdogan on Twitter. The Turkish government issued a warrant for his arrest known as an Interpol “red notice.”
“A prosecutor indicted me for four years jail time for ‘insulting’ Erdogan - who deserves every single criticism in the name of him violating human and democratic rights,” Kanter told Al Arabiya English.
Kanter’s family, who live in Turkey, were also targeted by the state.
Kanter’s father was fired from his position as a university professor during the 2016 purge of public employees, as tens of thousands of people were arrested or dismissed from government jobs, and thousands of media organizations or civil society groups were shut, in a clampdown following the failed military coup against Erdogan’s government.
His father was also jailed for one week as a result of Kanter’s political status. Kanter has not communicated with his parents or sister in Turkey since their family home was raided in 2016. He hasn’t seen them in four years.
Kanter himself has been made stateless as a result of his criticism. In 2017, while on a worldwide tour for his charitable Enes Kanter Foundation, Kanter was detained in a Romanian airport after authorities told him his passport was invalid. Turkey had revoked Kanter's passport, rendering him stateless.
That year Kanter reported receiving death threats in both Turkey and the US, his adopted country.
Despite the impact on his life, Kanter continues to criticize Erdogan’s authoritarianism and the corruption of the Turkish legal system.
“I don’t call it the Turkish legal system because it doesn’t serve the Turkish people with justice, but is for Erdogan and his interests only,” said Kanter.
Free speech and human rights have suffered under Erdogan, with insulting the president carrying a prison sentence.
Last week prominent opposition official Canan Kaftancioglu was sentenced to nearly 10 years in jail over several charges including insulting Erdogan. In July, singer and actress Zuhal Olcay, was sentenced to 10 months for insulting Erdogan.
Kanter described Kaftancioglu and Olcay, like himself, as victims of the “vicious Erdogan legal system.”
“Dictator Erdogan uses all powers as much as he can as a political revenge tool. This is not acceptable and should not continue - otherwise Turkey won’t be able to stay a reliable ally for any country in the region,” said Kanter.
However, Kanter does see some hope for the future.
“I believe if the US puts sanctions on Turkey that’s going to solve some of the problems,” he said, adding that Washington should approach Turkey with “the language of deterrent diplomacy” to constrain Erdogan.
Kanter also pointed to new developments in the Turkish political arena as giving him hope for Turkey, and his own situation.
This week, former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan announced his intentions to form a new political party to challenge Erdogan’s AK Party. The country is due to hold a general election in 2023.
“If Erdogan is out, Turkey would go back to its factory setting eventually. Then this means all charges against me would drop. I’ll reconnect with my family and things will start getting back to normal,” said Kanter.SHOW MORE